It wasn’t until two years after construction began on the controversial Gibe III dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia that Ikal Angelei learned about the project. She soon realized, however, what the massive project would mean for hundreds of thousands of indigenous Ethiopians and Kenyans who rely on the waters of Lake Turkana, the world’s largest permanent desert lake, which is located downstream.
While the Ethiopian government claims the Gibe III will provide badly needed electricity to one of Africa’s poorest regions, Angelei, a 31-year-old Kenyan who grew up in the Lake Turkana Basin, says it would come at a steep price. The dam – which would be the world’s fourth-largest – is expected to cause the lake’s water level to drop by as much as 33 feet, a shift that would not only devastate fish stocks but trigger increased conflict in a region already troubled by violence over dwindling water resources.
Outraged that the massive dam project was being planned without any input from local communities – and without a comprehensive study into the long-term ecological and social costs – Angelei founded the Friends of Lake Turkana in 2009. In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Christina M. Russo, Angelei describes why the Gibe III project threatens the very survival of the region’s indigenous tribes, what it will take it to stop it, and how she has used public pressure and social media to galvanize local and international opposition to the dam.
“If we let go and say, ‘Build the dam,’ it means we are saying that accountability doesn’t account for anything in this world, and [that] governments can destroy environments and destroy ecosystems in the name of development,” said Angelei, who this month received a 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize.
Yale Environment 360: I wanted to ask you first about Lake Turkana. As the largest desert lake in the world, the area around it is quite harsh – and yet the lake appears to be very soft and beckoning.
Ikal Angelei: The region itself is very harsh. But when you go to the lake and you hear the waves, and you just see the moving of the water.... it is unimaginable. In this very harsh area, you get this cold, nice water. It is just amazing. As you are driving – from the eastern shores or from the western shores – the lake is almost like a mirage. And as you come nearer and nearer, you just see a mass of water. For me, years later, despite being brought up there, that moment is still a magical feeling.
e360: You’ve written that “more than a quarter-million residents from at least 10 tribes have become masters at wresting sustenance from the harsh landscape.” What communities live in the Lake Turkana area?
Angelei: The indigenous communities around the lake include Samburu, El Molo, Turkana, Rendille, Gabra, and Dassanach – they are in Kenya. When you go into Ethiopia you have the Dassanach of Ethiopia, the Mursi, Nyangatom, Bodi, Hamar...
e360: Before the founding of Friends of Lake Turkana did the communities interact?
Angelei: Actually before the project they were isolated, but it was seasonally based. If you understand the conflicts around the region, we are in conflict about resources.... The identity of the people is the lake. Even if you are trying to look geographically at where they are located, one will say “western shores” or “eastern shores” of the lake.
Economically, because of the changes in climate coupled with the harsh, extreme nature of the climate, people are looking at fishing – not to substitute but to complement pastoralism. So communities who are naturally not fishermen are now going into fishing.
In terms of the water table in the region – it is a dry area. So we really depend on groundwater, because we can’t depend on the rainfall.... With the lake receding, the water table of the lake goes down. It dramatically affects the groundwater across the basin. So even people who are not naturally fishermen or directly depend on the lake, they depend on the groundwater for survival.
The very basic [threat] is that the ecosystem of the lake will change because of the dam project. If you have a reduced inflow from the river you will change the chemical balance of the lake. One, it is going to make the water more saline, so you cannot use it for human or animal consumption. The fish may not be able to sustain themselves in that water, because it becomes too acidic for them. And with the flow downstream of the Omo River, that’s what determines the spawning and the breeding of fish.
e360: Why will the absence of the natural flooding process have such devastating affects on the communities?
Angelei: People always say, “Oh, we are controlling the flooding.” But you cannot alter nature; you cannot fight nature... Lake Turkana doesn’t have an outlet; it is a closed lake. So it depends on that balance of inflow versus evaporation. If you reduce that inflow, the level of evaporation increases. Once you have altered the balance of the lake, you have damaged the ecosystem completely.
They want to let the water flow in the minimum amount downstream. But that totally destroys the way people are living. When we leave the natural flow of the river, it spreads across into areas that are within the Turkana basin. That allows for pasture to grow where various communities are grazing. When you alter that, and water doesn’t flood the region, then communities start to move to where these resources are available, which puts more pressure not only on the environment, it creates more conflict over the scarce resources that are available.
The same [threat] exists in Ethiopia — we cannot ignore that this is an area where communities are also struggling for resources. The communities live a way of life that is like a typical African three-legged stool. They depend on subsistence farming; they depend on fishing; and they depend on pastoralism. If you reduce the floods, it damages their subsistence farming, which is very key to their normal way of life... If you remove one leg, the stool really cannot balance.
e360: The dam construction began in 2006. But you didn’t hear about it immediately. How did you come to understand the project had begun?
Angelei: In late 2008, that is when I met [anthropologist] Richard Leakey. And while interacting with him and starting to work with him at the Turkana Basin Institute, he came up to me one time and gave me a document that he had just received. The document indicated there was a dam being constructed, and a group of scientists and researchers had looked at what was said to be an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that had just been released — and those scientists and researchers were questioning the facts [about the report].
e360: You had no idea about it until then?
Angelei: No idea about it. And Leakey said, “Yes, even I have just been informed about it.” So I quickly started to talk to my members of parliament to find out if they knew about it. That is when we realized that neither the parliamentarians that represent the region nor the local communities knew about the project.
e360: Did you think this was intentional?
Angelei: We believed it was intentional. Later on, we read in the newspapers that some government officials knew about it. And that’s when we knew that, for them, it was a matter of energy versus the life of people.
e360: How is Kenya supposed to benefit from this dam?
e360: After your discovery about the dam, you launched Friends of Lake Turkana.
Angelei: We officially formed the Friends of Lake Turkana in 2009 because we realized we needed to have a legal body. At first, the other citizens of Kenya — who had very little information about Lake Turkana — just thought we were making noise. Most of them were looking at it as, “We need energy; we are tired of blackouts.” Which was reasonable. And we recognize the efforts of both the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments to source for energy development. But for us, it has always been: At what expense? And what alternatives do we have?
It seemed that originally more people did not know about the project than did. In Kenya, when there is a lot of hiding, we start to suspect something. So people started to question: Why is the government hiding something?
e360: So now what is Kenya’s position on the project?
Angelei: It is quite divided. Half the ministers believe that this project should be stopped. The parliament has passed a motion asking the government to ask for a halt in the project unless a comprehensive and independent Environmental Impact Assessment is done — and an environmental social impact is undertaken. Not only on the dam but also the greater Omo basin.
But our president, our prime minister, and the minister of energy keep insisting that the project should go on. So, then we started to wonder what politics is being played here.
e360: If Kenya decided to halt support for it, would the project stop altogether?
Angelei: I don’t think it could go on without Kenya’s support because the viability of this project is based on Kenya’s purchase [of electricity]. Ethiopia has already enough domestic energy — it has the Gibe I and Gibe II dams, which are sufficient for Ethiopia.
e360: Now the project has been criticized by your organization for not abiding by appropriate international and domestic protocol, including criticisms of the bidding process What has transpired that has made some major organizations back away from supporting the project?
Angelei: For a project this big that seeks international funding — which is basically taxpayer money from all these countries — you have to go through an open, public bidding process. This project did not go through that.
Salini [the Italy-based contractor] approached Ethiopia — and the company was given a direct bid. So the fact is that one company was given a contract of such large magnitude, without advertising and without letting others bid for the project.
e360: You think of this project as a human rights abuse as well as an environmental abuse?
Angelei: Yes, I think it is a human rights abuse and an environmental abuse. You cannot say “development” is telling people that your way of life doesn’t work anymore. People have to develop in the way they see fit. If I don’t want to drive, it doesn’t mean I’m not developed. It means I am living my life in the way I see fit, as long as I am able to achieve my spiritual and basic needs.
e360: Do you think all of Kenya wants to fight to protect Lake Turkana, or do you feel this battle is very isolated?
Angelei: A greater part of Kenya appreciates the importance of environments, and how people live. But there are always the ignorant few who you meet along with way — who for them, having the electricity to play their music, and having lights and not having blackouts is more of a priority than communities and the way of life.
e360: Are you getting more support since your campaign began?
Angelei: Yes. Most people just didn’t understand what the issue was. But with a lot of media coverage and a lot of open discussions and with a lot of information on the website and using social media, there is a lot more interest. And especially after a couple of raids in the region, where we lost about 124 people, Turkana especially... it brought a clear picture of conflict over resources and conflict over water.
e360: Who is mainly in conflict with each other in the area?
Angelei: There’s conflict between the Turkana and Dassanach in Kenya, and the Turkana and the Dassanach across the border... People used to talk about traditional raids. It’s no longer that. People are now well armed and it depends on who has more bullets than the other.
e360: Are the communities in the Lower Omo Valley facing similar issues as you are at Lake Turkana?
Angelei: More or less, they have similar issues. But I think they are more pressured now. They have more pressure on their resources because land is being grabbed for sugarcane plantations and cotton plantations.
e360: I read a report by Survival International that says Ethiopia plans to resettle tribes which “stand in the way” of development plans related to the Gibe III dam. Is this really happening?
Angelei: Yes it is happening. Communities are being forced out of their lands... The government of Ethiopia is coming into the region and forcing communities out, because they have vast land — that’s what allows them to have these lives, to be pastoralists, fish, subsistence farming. So they are being pushed into something like concentration camps — where they are told they will be given education, schools, health care. And then their land is being taken and in turn given to international companies from India, Malaysia, and more developing countries to produce sugar cane, cotton, etc.
e360: What is the Friends of Lake Turkana’s ultimate goal?
Angelei: For us, this campaign will set a precedent. If we let go and say, “Build the dam,” it means we are saying that accountability doesn’t account for anything in this world, and [that] governments can destroy environments and destroy ecosystems in the name of development. So our big goal is to push for a comprehensive, independent environmental and social impact assessments of the entire basin, which would allow us to understand what opportunities we have; what challenges we have, how fragile this ecosystem is; and what sort of development can be done there. And it would allow the communities to be part of this discussion.
e360: To be clear: If this dam project continues, you feel very strongly that people are going to die.
Angelei: Definitely. It’s water. The other day, in Turkana, they discovered oil. The only thing that the local people were saying is: Why can’t you ever discover water?
There’s absolutely no way that dam can go on and the people in Turkana will survive. If it’s not directly, then they’ll kill each other, one by one. People will be fighting every day because it is the only way of survival now. We have very scarce resources. We have very little water. So who will control the water? It will be the strongest person.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christina M. Russo, who conducted this interview for Yale Environment 360, is a freelance public radio producer who has worked at WBUR in Boston and KQED in San Francisco. In 2009, she reported and co-produced a nationally syndicated public radio documentary examining the state of American zoos, called “From Cages to Conservation.”
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